A Little Lumpen Novelita

I reviewed A Little Lumpen Novelita for the Dublin Review of Books and also considered its role in Bolaño’s fictional universe.

http://www.drb.ie/essays/a-leap-into-darkness

The myth of Bolaño then is that it was supposedly created by book marketers and the media. The myth is that there is only one way for an American (or English-speaking) idea of a “Latin American author” to exist. If an author’s story or works do not neatly fit into that mould, then the reality will be twisted into the desired shape. But that logic creates a counter-myth if the myth itself is easier to comprehend than the reality at stake.

Part of what makes Bolaño so appealing and so confounding is his wide interest in various subjects and themes. His work operates on a hyper-realistic model of everything-all-at-once. A Little Lumpen Novelita is unique in his fictional universe because it is set in Rome (and features a Libyan character), but throughout his many novels and stories he explores the history and literature of dozens of countries, the politics of Europe, Mexico, Central and South America. His books examine religion and Catholicism, the nature of death, drama, academia, games, World War II, the lives of the poets, drinking, sex, the police, oceans, disappearances, murder, sports and film, just to name a few. His literary styles and techniques are equally varied diverse. And yet he manages to return to several key motifs and characters throughout his four decades of writing.

 

Mexicans Lost in the Labyrinth of Mexico City

Bolaño burst onto the American literary scene in 2007—four years after his death—with The Savage Detectives. The long novel is divided into three sections: I) Mexicans Lost in Mexico (1975), II) The Savage Detectives (1976-1996), and III) The Sonora Desert (1976).

I started working on this post about locations in The Savage Detectives four years ago. I plotted some of the maps out shortly after I had mapped out some of the Mexico City locations in 2666. In our 2009 group read of 2666, we also created a map of most of the locations mentioned in all five sections of that novel. In the time since then, Gabe Habash has published a wonderful map of the road trip that takes place in third section of The Savage Detectives.

Many people read the fairly short first section of the novel, which is narrated by Juan Garcia Madero and hopscotches around the tangle of streets in Mexico City, and loved it, but were often put off by the second lengthy section of interviews. Some called it a slog and didn’t see how that second section tied in with the rest of the book.

I’m also interested in that first section (all the sections, really) and so I’m going to focus on the geography of Mexico City described in the novel’s opening 120 pages. Let me also start with the caveats that I have not been to Mexico City, I do not speak Spanish, and that in fact, the geography of the book is one of the hooks for me “into” the book. Imagining the passage of people through spaces helps me see the story differently than I otherwise might.

At one point, Juan Garcia Madero is inside the Fonts’ walled estate and he is so immersed in that environment that he can’t believe “Mexico City is really out there.” That’s how I feel. I’m so immersed in my own little world that I forget that I’m actually surrounded by a vibrant city, state, country, and continent.

I also realize that Bolaño is describing a Mexico City of 38 years ago and that many of the places he’s describing have vanished or changed, and are not visible in Google Street View, but the general layout of the streets has not changed. And it seems that Bolaño derives great pleasure from mentally re-walking the streets of his youth, describing elaborate routes and recalling exact street names. I hope someone with more knowledge than I will leave a comment explaining where I have erred and what I have missed.

The page numbers below correspond to the 2012 Picador UK edition of the novel.

SECTION I: Mexicans Lost in Mexico

p. 6 – Madero, Lima, and Belano take a pesero to Reforma, from there they walk to a bar on Calle Bucareli. Reforma is a huge avenue in DF. Here’s a look at the intersection of Reforma and Bucareli:

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That yellow statue is in front of a skyscraper called the Torre del Caballito.

Could this be the bar they visit?

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Probably not (see below).

p. 7—We learn that Madero lives in Colonia Lindavista {Lindavista is located in the borough of Gustavo A. Madero}; he goes back to the bar on Bucareli.

[Note that Insurgentes runs right through the neighborhood. It is the main artery of traffic here.]

colonialindavista

p.8—After a brief mention of the sewers of Chapultepec, Madero is back in the bar on Bucareli. We learn that the bar is called Encrucijada Veracruzana.

This guy claims to have taken photos of many of the real places in The Savage Detectives, including Encrucijada Veracruzana (which roughly translates to “Crossroads of Veracruz”; later on we find out that Rosario, the waitress, is from Veracruz).

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This “Cantina Bar Bucareli” still exists at 66 Calle Bucareli.


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p. 10—Madero takes the UNAM bus and wanders around “downtown” where he stops at a bookstore called   “Librería del Sótano.” He then crosses Juarez and eats his lunch in the Alameda.

“Downtown” is essentially “Centro”, or the area around the historic city center – the Zocalo. The Alameda park Madero visits is the western border of “downtown.”

Centro

Júarez is the street on the southern border of the Alameda, implying that the bookstore is right there on Júarez or very nearby. And, in fact, if you waltz down Júarez, you’ll see the bookstore, called “Librerías del Sótano,” is still there:


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Here is a park bench in the Alameda:


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Madero then spent the evening on Calle Corazón (which is one block over from where Madero lives in Colonia Lindavista). I think this is a fictional street name, but Madero says he watches a soccer game being played there and there is one soccer pitch right in the middle of Lindavista, bordering Calle Lima. I’m going to consider that a nod to Ulises Lima. Or vice-versa.

soccer

pp. 12-13—Madero goes to Café Quito on Bucareli, which is a little past the Encrucijada. The real-life Cafe Quito, confirmed by Bolaño’s translator, is a place called Cafe La Habana.


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Maria Font’s house is in Colonia Condesa; Catalina O’Hara’s house in Colonia Coyoacán.

Colonia Condesa is right next to Chapultepec.

Condesa

And Coyoacán, the famous artist’s district once home to Frida Kahlo, is farther south, down near UNAM.


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p. 18—Ulises Lima lives in a room on a rooftop on Calle Anahuac, near Insurgentes.

Here is Anahuác, just off Insurgentes. Could that be Lima’s place up there?


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p. 19—they steal books from the Libreria Francesca in the (upscale) Zona Rosa and from the Libreria Baudelaire on Calle General Martinez, near Calle Horacio in Polanco.

“Libreria Francesca” just means “French bookstore” and in fact there is a real French-language bookstore in Zona Rosa, also called Temps de Lire. The Librería Baudelaire is actually a bookstore in Santiago, Chile, that Bolaño here seems to have superimposed onto Mexico City.  The Avenida Horacio (not Calle) in Polanco (just north of Chapultepec) doesn’t appear to have a “Calle General Martinez” anywhere near there. However, Polanco is interesting in that it has streets named after Horace (Horacio), Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Archimedes, Hesiod, Ibsen, Racine, Homer, Pascal, Galileo, Cicero, Pliny, Sophocles, Seneca, Moliere, Jules Verne, Oliver Goldsmith, Edgar Allan Poe, Lafontaine, Anatole France, Dumas, Tennyson, Emerson, Schiller, Isaac Newton, Hegel, and Euler among others. No doubt this appealed to Bolaño.

p. 22—the Fonts live in Colonia Condesa on Calle Colima. Colima sort of dead-ends on the eastern edge of Condesa, so I’m assuming it’s that end of Colima that houses the Font estate. In that last block of Colima is now the Museo Histórico Judío y del Holocausto.

p. 26—Pancho and Madero meet at El Loto de Quintana Roo, a Chinese café (where they drink coffee) near the Glorieta de Insurgentes. “El loto” means the lotus and Quintana Roo is a state in the Yucatan. It’s a funny image. The Glorieta de Insurgentes is a large monument in a traffic circle on Insurgentes.

glorieta

Note that just off Avenida Chapultepec is Calle Amberes. Amberes (or Antwerp) is the title of Bolaño’s short, seminal work of experimental fiction. Pancho and Juan then head for the Fonts’ home in Colonia Condesa (p. 27).

p. 29—We learn that Laura Damian died when she was struck by a car in Tlalpan, which is on the southern edge of D.F., south of Coyoacán.

tlalpan

pp. 32-33—Maria meets Garcia Madero at Café Quito. They leave and walk along Bucareli toward Reforma, then cross Reforma and head up Avenida Guerrero. Maria says “this is where the whores are.” Basically, they are just walking north on Bucareli as it turns into Guerrero north of Reforma. They continue north past Violeta and Magnolia, “Someday I’m going to live here,” she says. [Calle Magnolia is called “J. Meneses” west of Guerrero.]

Madero-walk

p. 34—We learn the dance school Maria attends is on Donceles. Donceles is just  a  couple of blocks off the Zocalo and is indeed in the arts district where there are several theaters, museums, and dance companies.


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They turn left on Magnolia, on to Avenida Jesus Garcia, then walk south to Heroes Revolucionarios Ferrocarrileros, where they go into a coffee shop. (Magnolia changes into J. Meneses, and then into Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. In this section of the novel, Madero makes a “banal remark” about Sor Juana to Maria and she judges him harshly—he avoids the topic of Sor Juana after that. {You can also see here how frequently streets change names. Stay on one DF street long enough and it is certain to be called something else. Bolaño says “Every hundred feet the world changes.”}) I’m not sure who “J. Meneses” commemorates. Perhaps this Chilean priest?

JesusGarcia

If they go east on Heroes/Mina, all the way back to Guerrero, they will have just made a circle.

p. 37—Lupe tells the story of how she got beat up and sat down on a bench in the Plaza San Fernando to die. You can see “Calle San Fernando” and the adjacent plaza in the picture just above (in the lower right corner). The park benches there have a unique look.


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When Lupe’s son died, she was living in a building on Paraguay, near the Plaza de Santa Catarina. After that story, there is a lot of back and forth to the Fonts’ house.

p. 58—Pancho and Garcia Madero leave the Fonts’ House in Colonia Condesa. They walk through the Parque España, down Parras, through the Parque San Martin, and along Teotihuacan. They get to Insurgentes, then head down Manzanillo, turn onto Aguascalientes, then south again onto Medellin, walking until they reach Calle Tepeji, stopping in front of a five-story building. This is a fairly easy route to follow on Google Maps and gives us a better idea of where exactly on Colima the Fonts live: likely in the block between Guadalajara and Sonora. Here is the route, starting on Colima, down through the two parks, across Insurgentes and south on Manzanillo.

parqueEspana

And here’s the rest of the route: south on Manzanillo, to Aguascalientes, to Medellin, to Tepeji.

Medellin

Somewhere on that block of Tepeji they go into a five story building. All of the buildings on this block are two-story, except for the one right at the corner of Medellin, which is blue and five stories tall.


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p. 59—From the roof of that building they can see the lots of the Parque de las Americas, the Medical Center, the Children’s Hospital, and the General Hospital. Although, I don’t think there is any park called that per se – the park here is Jardin Ramon Lopez Velarde.

HospitalGeneral

 

p. 65—Madero goes to the bus stop on Insurgentes, but then decides to go back to the Fonts’ house.

Here is the nearest bus stop on Insurgentes.

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Madero calls Maria Font and tells her he is near her house, at Plaza Popocatépetl. (Note here that Avenida Sonora connects the Plaza and Colima, Font’s street. Section III of The Savage Detectives is called “The Sonora Desert.”)

Plaza

Madero waits in the Plaza for two hours, writing in his journal and reading a book of poems, before venturing back over to the Fonts’ estate.


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p. 75 – Madero and Maria go to a lecture by Octavio Paz. They meet Ernesto at the lecture, at the Capilla Alfonsina. Afterward they go to a restaurant on Calle Palma called La Palma de la Vida.

Some of the following pages mention places we’ve already visited: Reforma, Cafe Quito, Bucareli, etc.

p. 79 – Madero sleeps with Rosario “at her place, a crummy tenement building way out in the Colonia Merced Balbuena, near the Calzada de la Viga.”  Here is just such a building:


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pp. 81-86 – Madero leaves the Encrucijada Veracruzana (on Bucareli) and “turns the corner” at the Reloj Chino and walks toward La Ciudadela, looking for a cafe where he can write. He crosses the Jardin Morelos, crosses Niños Heroes (also called Calle de Balderos), Plaza Pacheco, and is about to turn up Revillagigedo toward the Alameda when Quim Font and Lupe surprise him. They turn right on Victoria to Dolores and go into a Chinese cafe. They leave the cafe at one in the morning and go looking for a hotel. They finally find one on Rio de la Loza called Media Luna and leave Lupe there. Quim and Garcia Madero keep walking toward Reforma and Quim takes a taxi at Niños Heroes.

route2

p. 90 – Madero looks for Belano and Ulises Lima in bookstores, starting with “Plinio el Joven, on Venustiano Carranza” then the “Lizardi bookstore on Donceles” and the “antiquarian bookstore Rebecca Nodier” at Mesones and Pino Suarez.

Calle de Venustiano Carranza is a shopping district just south of the Zocalo. I didn’t see any bookstores on the street now, or anything called Pliny the Younger, but there is a restaurant called Bolaño’s.


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Calle Donceles is a used bookstore mecca. There are at least a dozen used bookstores in this one street.


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There are no bookstores there any longer, but here is the intersection of Mesones and Pino Suarez:


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pp. 91-92 – Madero again visits a bunch of bookstores: Librería del Sotano on Juarez, Librería Mexicana on Calle Aranda, near the Plaza de San Juan, the Librería Pacifico at Bolivar and 16 de Septiembre, the Viejo Horacio on Correo Mayor, Librería Orozco on Reforma between Oxford and Praga, Librería Milton at Milton and Darwin, and the Librería El Mundo on Rio Nazas.

We’ve already visited the Librería del Sotano on Juarez (above), but the Librería Mexicana on Calle Aranda, near the Plaza de San Juan, is long gone, replaced by a district of chicken restaurants.


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The Librería Pacifico at Bolivar and 16 de Septiembre is also either gone or fictional, but on that same block (and coincidentally, somewhat closer to Avenida Francisco Madero) is the American Bookstore.


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The Viejo Horacio on Correo Mayor is also in the general vicinity of these other locations, Centro. No Old Horace bookstore there, though. The Librería Orozco on Reforma between Oxford and Praga, if it existed, would be here:


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The Librería Milton at Milton and Darwin is near Polanco, on this block:


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Finally, the Librería El Mundo on Rio Nazas is also non-existent, but, for effect, here is a bookstand on Rio Nazas:


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Rio Nazas seems to be a fairly upscale street, home to the French Embassy, a yoga studio, cafes, etc.

For more on bookstores in Mexico City, there is a good (English-language) walking tour here.

pp. 97-99 – Madero goes to Cafe Quito, walks to Montes, where Jacinto lives, then wanders around after calling the Fonts’, before finding himself in a “bleak stretch of Colonia Anahuac, surrounded by dying trees and peeling walls.” He goes into a place on Calle Texcoco and drinks coffee then calls Angelica Font again. Later he walks back to Sullivan and as he crosses Reforma, near the statue of Cuauhtemoc, he runs into Belano and Ulises Lima.

There are several mentions of “Calle Montes” in the book, but I couldn’t find it. Maybe that street has been renamed? We do know that it’s near the Monument to the Revolution, which is between Bucareli (A) and Anahuac (C).


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There is still plenty of peeling paint and dying trees in Anahuac.


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Here is Madero’s route back from Anahuac to Reforma, where he runs into Belano and Lima (and then wakes up in Rosario’s room out in Merced Balbuena).


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p. 106 – Madero and Rosario walk to a bathhouse on Calle Lorenzo Boturini called “El Amanuense Azteca.”

You can see that Lorenzo Boturini is the name of a neighborhood directly south of Merced Balbuena, and Lorenzo Boturini is the name of the main avenue in that neighborhood.

Lorenzo

There is no bath house there, but there is a gym on Lorenzo Boturini:

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p. 109 – Garcia Madero wanders around downtown, stopping by the Zócalo and ending up at a café on Madero called Nueva Síbaris (new Sybaris implies something erotic there and indeed Pancho recounts his night of whoring for Madero there).

The Zócalo, where Madero’s “pores opened up at last”:


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The borough is called “Gustavo Madero,” but the avenue just off the Zócalo is “Francisco I. Madero.” On this avenue is a Gandhi Books store (there are several in DF). It was in Gandhi Books in 1976 where Bolaño stood up and first read the Infrarealist Manifesto.

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I’m fairly certain that the Gandhi Books Bolaño stole from and read at is this one on Juarez, near Librerías del Sótano and the Alameda.


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Bolano

 

[photos from CCCB touring dossier]

 

p. 110 – Madero and Pancho catch a taxi at Reforma and Juárez (Francisco I. Madero turns into Juárez) and head back toward the Fonts’ house on Calle Colima in Colonia Condesa.

reforma

[click the image]

p. 116 – Madero is at the Fonts’ house and hears sounds of a party from one of the houses on Calle Guadalajara or Avenida Sonora. This allows us, finally, to pinpoint the exact block of the Fonts’ house. It seems safe to assume here that it is on Calle Colima between Guadalajara and Sonora.

FONTS

Most of the buildings on that block are now large medical offices or multi-story apartment buildings, but there are a couple of single-family homes left on the south side of the street.


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p. 120 – a brief mention of Calle Cuernavaca, which Colima dead-ends into in the west.

p. 124 – Ulises Lima, Belano, Garcia Madero, and Lupe make their escape from Calle Colima in Quim’s Impala. In “less than two seconds we were on Avenida Oaxaca, heading north out of the city.”

route_OUT

 

Many of the same locations show up in Part II of the novel. I’m working on mapping those, but will have to break the locations into five or six posts.

A few pics from the Bolaño exhibit in Barcelona

UPDATE: I’ve posted Maria Serrano’s commentary about each of the images below.

The CCCB in Barcelona is currently hosting an exhibit of Bolaño’s personal effects (manuscripts, notebooks, typewriters, etc.) titled BOLAÑO ARCHIVE. 1977-2003.

EXPOSICIÓ // ARXIU BOLAÑO 1977-2003 from CCCB on Vimeo.

Additionally, the exhibit includes several audio-visual works based on Bolaño’s writing. Here’s an example:

Wallace-l lister Maria Serrano attended the exhibit in Barcelona and shares with us these pictures. Click to enlarge.

Maria says: “This image belongs to the manuscript of 2666. It’s from “The part about Amalfitano”, when Professor Amalfitano suddenly starts drawing geometric figures while his students do their work. The text in the novel reads like this: “The next day, as his students wrote, or as he himself was talking, Amalfitano began to draw very simple geometric figures, a triangle, a rectangle, and at each vertex he wrote whatever name came to him, dictated by fate or lethargy or the immense boredom he felt thanks to his students and the classes and the oppressive heat that had settled over the city. Like this:”

 

What appears to be a map of Santa Teresa:

Tinajero’s “poem” from The Savage Detectives, but Maria notes this is actually a manuscript page from Antwerp:

Maria notes: “This page is also from Antwerp. In this case its the Postscript. It reads like this (I love this quote, I think the image it summons is very powerful): “POSTSCRIPT: Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength. (Significant, said the foreigner.) Odes to the human and the divine. Let my writing be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to grid himself with courage.”

Bolaño’s business card. He calls himself a Poet and Vagabond.

 

Another draft of Tinajero’s poem. Maria says: “The Savage Detectives / Ción [in Mexican Spanish sounds like “Sion”] / visual poem? By Cesárea Tinajero found in an issue of “Caborca” / that according to Lima and Belano meant / Navigation / Acta Est Fabu”.

One thing that strikes me is how clean and neat these journals are. Here are some of Madero’s drawings (claves = keys) for The Savage Detectives:

Marvin Kleinemeier also attended the exhibit and took some fantastic photos. I especially love the picture of Bolaño’s copy of The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich board game.

April 28, 2013 would have been Bolaño’s 60th birthday. The CCCB is hosting “Bolaño Day” in his honor. Here are a few ways to participate, including using the hashtag #diabolaño  on Twitter.

The Third Reich: Udo the German

Why is Bolaño so obsessed with Germany? Maybe this is naive (and US-centric) question, but throughout his work, Bolaño displays an interest in Europe as the center of culture, with the U.S. playing much more of a supportive role. We see this in 2666 wherein the three critics are European and travel to Mexico. Oscar Fate represents the only significant American character—and he is an outsider. In The Third Reich, Udo Berger plays the board game “The Third Reich” and as a model of World War II, the focus is not on the Pacific Theater or the US, but on Europe. One of the benefits of reading a lot of contemporary Latin American fiction is gaining a different perspective on the world—especially one that does not countenance the United States of America very much. Bolaño and Enrique Vila-Matas (among others) share a fascination with Paris. Bolaño moved from Chile to Mexico to the Costa Brava, Spain—the setting of The Third Reich.

The Third Reich is the story of a man who goes to Spain on vacation and can’t bring himself to leave. This is sort of what happened to Roberto Bolaño. So, it’s easy to see how the novel is a love letter to Spain, La Costa Brava, the Mediterranean Coast, and Blanes. Even though this is a novel about the interplay of games, I would argue that one of Bolaño’s main interests here is geography. Geography and history.

“History in general is a bloody thing, you have to admit.”—Udo

The game (The Third Reich) appears to be a more intricate and detailed version of Risk or Axis & Allies: Europe. But as a realistic reflection of World War II, a better parallel would probably be the game Europa. [Note the large gameboard, complex documentation, rulebooks, calculators, tweezers (!!), and hex units:]

EUROPA

http://www.zoi.wordherders.net/?page_id=22

At first glance, Bolaño doesn’t seem too interested in making the details of the game known. It’s not until late in the book that he reveals how the game is actually played (with dice) and at first, it seems more like a chess game (which requires no apparatus beyond the game pieces). But as the game between Udo and El Quemado evolves, we see more details emerge relating to how the game is actually played. Also, Bolaño initially ties up the “game” sections of the novel into standalone set pieces (which can be skipped over cleanly), but once the balance of power begins to shift from Udo to El Quemado (and Ingeborg and Hanna leave, and Udo is alone), the “game” sections become more intertwined into the main narrative.

Historically, obviously, Germany is a losing position. Yet, Udo is a national champion gamesman, from Germany, playing the German side. Until he actually loses to El Quemado, he remains convinced that he can always prevail with the German side. But he believes this is more of a strategic declaration than sympathy for the Nazis. Udo even says “I’m a kind of anti-Nazi.” It’s El Quemado whose ambiguous heritage represents the Other, the victim and enemy of the Germans. Udo is trying to re-write history in the name of geographical strategy.

Udo finds himself in a real-world game. The other game pieces are trapping him on multiple fronts and, like his match with El Quemado, the balance of power begins to shift and he finds his control over the situation slipping away. “The Wolf” and “The Lamb” seem less people than game pieces. When they corner the maid, Clarita, in Udo’s hotel room, Udo notes “she took possession of a strategic spot next to the bed.” Udo sees everything as a game, a contest, the people merely players.

Like many other novels, and many other games, there is a lot of setup without a lot of action. Like a lot of wars and a lot of summer vacations, there is monotony, a hurry-up-and-wait mentality. The allure of The Third Reich is all about setting and geography and atmosphere and scenarios. And yet, the characters, the world Bolaño creates here, comes to life as much as The Savage Detectives or 2666.

 

The Third Reich

Beginning with their Spring 2011 issue, The Paris Review is going to serialize Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous novel The Third Reich. They are even offering a discounted rate for the annual subscription beginning with this new issue (25% off the cover price domestically; offer good until March 15, 2011). If you haven’t subscribed to The Paris Review yet, now’s your chance!

We first heard about The Third Reich in this 2009 article.

Baggaley bought The Third Reich, a novel completed by Bolaño shortly before his death in 2003 and as yet unpublished in any language, from Sarah Chalfant at the Wylie Agency. It will be published in 2011.

The Third Reich was published in Spain by Anagrama last year: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/cultura/Anagrama/editara/Tercer/Reich/elpepucul/20090322elpepicul_2/Tes

And there’s a little more about The Third Reich in this old post: http://www.bolanobolano.com/2009/04/03/the-two-new-novels/

Recent Bolaño news

One of the more bizarre references to Bolaño turned up in this interview with actress Natasha Lyonne.

“I’m my own book club,” she said, a little sardonically and a little earnestly in the fiction section. “Did you read this?” she asked, pulling Roberto Bolano’s epic “2666” off the shelf. A reporter, sheepishly, admitted that he hadn’t. “I’ve read all of Bolano,” Ms. Lyonne said. “At the time, I wasn’t so into it and then it came back to me as a dream. Some of the stuff is very vivid.”

There is a great review of the four newest Bolaño titles (Monsieur Pain, Antwerp, The Return, and The Insufferable Gaucho) released by New Directions here: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/entertainment/books/20101024_Tales_by_Chilean_master_of_malaise.html

That review doesn’t deal with The Skating Rink, but there is a great review of it in The Independent.

The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Affect

by Maria Bustillos

Quite early in these proceedings, Terrell Williamson wrote in a comment:

In reading the portions about Edwin Johns, it occurred to me that Johns’s cutting off the hand with which he painted “for the money” is akin to Bolaño’s giving up writing poetry to focus on fiction “for the money” to support his family.

I’ve been wondering about that ever since, increasingly, as we’ve come to know something more about the sad case of Edwin Johns, and also about the sad case of Roberto Bolaño. Difficult though it is to believe, this book is the work of a gravely ill man. He was waiting for a liver transplant. Accounts differ as to the source of Bolaño’s illness: Benjamin Kunkel (of all people) stated quite flatly (in a highly MFA-flavored 2007 piece in LRB) that Bolaño’s liver had been damaged as the result of addiction to heroin; Bolaño’s family disputes this account. There is doubt, it looks like. Bolaño was very young, certainly, to have been suffering from liver disease.

Loads of interesting details are available in this recent NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/books/28bola.html (Highly recommended.)

It’s clear from a piece that appeared in El Mundo right after his death that Bolaño had been hopeful about getting through the transplant surgery okay. I’ve translated the relevant bits below. Spanish readers will find a number of interesting links on the page.
http://www.elmundo.es/elmundolibro/2003/07/15/protagonistas/1058255270.html

PADECÍA PROBLEMAS HEPÁTICOS
El escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño fallece en Barcelona a los 50 años

El escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño, de 50 años, ha muerto a las 2.30 horas en Barcelona tras sufrir complicaciones en una enfermedad hepática que padecía y para la que se preparaba para un trasplante, según ha informado el diario chileno ‘La Tercera’ y han confirmado fuentes cercanas a la familia.

Precisamente por esta operación -un trasplante de hígado-, Bolaño, una de las plumas chilenas más brillantes de la última década, pospuso su próxima novela, titulada ‘2666’, de la que él mismo dijo que sería su obra más ambiciosa.

“No estoy para hacer el trabajo que exige la novela. Son más de mil páginas que tengo que corregir, es un trabajo como de minero del siglo XIX”, dijo el escritor al diario La Tercera a mediados de junio.

“Procuro ahora hacer un trabajo más reposado. Voy a corregir la novela sólo después de la operación”, había señalado al matutino chileno.

En la entrevista, Bolaño se refirió a la esperada operación de trasplante: “El doctor dice que me va a avisar cinco horas antes y en ese tiempo tengo que pedir perdón, hacer mi testamento y poner mi alma en funciones. Estoy tercero en una lista para recibir el trasplante”.

Tras residir en Chile, México y Estados Unidos, Bolaño se trasladó a España en 1977. Pasó sus últimos años en la localidad gerundense de Blanes, donde vivía con su mujer Carolina López y sus dos hijos. En los comienzos se vio obligado a realizar diversos trabajos eventuales, desde comerciante hasta vigilante nocturno.

HE SUFFERED FROM LIVER PROBLEMS
The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño succumbs at age 50

The writer Roberto Bolaño, aged 50, died at 2:30a.m. in Barcelona after suffering complications of an illness of the liver, for which he was preparing for a transplant, according to the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, and confirmed by sources close to the family.

Precisely because of this operation, a liver transplant, Bolaño, one of the most brilliant literary lights of the last decade, postponed his next novel, entitled ‘2666’ which he himself said would be his most ambitious work.

“I’m in no shape to do the work the novel requires. There are over a thousand pages that I have to correct, it’s a job akin to being a miner of the 19th century,” said the author to La Tercera in mid-June.

“I’m looking to do more restful work. I’m going to correct the novel after the operation.”

In the interview, Bolaño referred repeatedly to the expected transplant.  “The doctor says that he’s going to let me know five hours beforehand, and in that time I must ask pardon [for my sins,] make my will and activate my soul.* I am the third on a transplant list.”

After living in Chile, Mexico and the United States, Bolaño relocated to Spain in 1977.  He spent his last years in the area around Blanes, where he lived with his wife Carolina López and their two children. At first he found himself obligated to do odd jobs, from trader to night watchman.

********

Returning now to Edwin Johns. The four critics are joined in a certain way over the painter, but in a manner different from their communion over Benno von Archimboldi. Norton introduces the other three to his work; to Morini directly, and to Pelletier and Espinoza through Morini. Morini is fascinated by the story, so much so that he makes a pilgrimage to the insane asylum to question the weirdly intimidating Johns. “I’m not an artist,” he tells Johns, who replies, “I’m not an artist either. Do you think you’re like me?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Morini replies.

One thing is certain: Bolaño depicts a substantial divide between artists and others. I suspect that this is an authentic conviction for him, that is, he himself believes this, rather than observing it to be a commonly-held or noteworthy belief. But what is he saying constitutes an “artist”?

One way of looking at this is, Johns is considered an artist simply because he lopped his own hand off. Absolutely, this act created, for him, a succès de scandale. The world outside the novel does not lack for parallel examples, the most obvious being the performance artist Chris Burden, who in 1971 staged his own shooting as a sort of art-happening (admittedly, one with less permanent consequences.) For Johns to mutilate himself, not in a performance but “for money” as he claims, focused the world’s attention on both himself and his painting. Can we assume that he cared deeply enough about the latter to relearn how to do it with his remaining hand? Was his self-mutilation really just cynical, mercenary? Self-loathing? Just a show? Or was it the final existential shriek that brought public attention to something of genuine value, something that he was so committed to, so much that he was ready to make any sacrifice in order to get that attention?

A simpler, really kind of banal reading is: the hand symbolizes the artist’s talent. In order to find fame the artist has to betray his own gift. In this reading, we’re looking at shorthand for pandering.

A third reading is that it really is a heroic act to cut off your own hand. It requires balls, people will be scared shitless of you forever, and you wind up in a comfortable Swiss chalet with nobody to bother or hassle you, attended by charming women, surrounded by a gorgeous landscape.  So which is it?

* the phrase is “poner mi alma en funciones,” a phrase you would ordinarily use not of a soul but more like, say you are president, and you’ve hired someone to do an important job but they haven’t really started working yet. So you say, “I’m going to put this guy in the game.”  As in, crank it up.

Week 2: Bolaño and the Academy

by Maria Bustillos

The academy in 2666 is very meticulously observed, and yet I cannot find much detail out there about Bolaño’s own formal education. Nobody online seems to mention any specific institutions where he worked, taught, or wrote. It seems almost inevitable that if there were any such institutions, their representatives would have been very keen to claim such an association. So it appears that we are looking at an autodidact? A very, very learned autodidact, who lived all over the world, and who was superconnected in Spanish and Latin American literary and political circles. (Please comment, if you know more on this point!)

I’d like to know more about the apparent difference between the American literary world and the European/Latin American one that Bolaño was part of. “Serious” writers in the US seem in general to be more closely tied to the academy, though “establishment” figures like the Nobel-winning Octavio Paz taught at a whole lot of fancy schools. But Bolaño was a socialist, in some sense a revolutionary, and I think we can extrapolate beyond that to conjecture that he saw his contribution to literature (as to the world at large) as subversive, anti-authoritarian—as, generally, the work of an outsider.

So, as I was saying … despite the fact that Bolaño was not of the academy, he seems to have understood its workings very well indeed. The critics of 2666 are very like real academics in all their ambition and their weird intellectual competitiveness, shot through with a real and passionate desire to read, and understand, and to write, and be understood.

With all this in mind, let’s have a look at the following mind-blowing, virtuoso passage from the novel, quite possibly my favorite so far. It speaks clearly to Bolaño’s rejection of the academic life, and of institutions generally. This rejection comes on all fronts: societal, cultural, political and intellectual.

(And at this point it must be said that there’s truth to the saying make your name, then sleep and reap fame, because Espinoza’s and Pelletier’s participation in the conference “Reflecting the Twentieth Century: The Work of Benno von Archimboldi,” not to mention their contribution to it, was at best null, at worst catatonic, as if they were suddenly spent or absent, prematurely aged or in a state of shock, a fact that didn’t pass unnoticed by the attendees used to Espinoza’s and Pelletier’s displays of energy [sometimes brazen] at this sort of event, nor did it go unnoticed by the latest litter of Archimboldians, recent graduates, boys and girls, their doctorates tucked still warm under their arms, who planned, by any means necessary, to impose their particular readings of Archimboldi, like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if to do so meant signing a pact with the devil, for most were what you might call rationalists, not in the philosophical sense but in the pejorative literal sense, denoting people less interested in literature than in literary criticism, the one field, according to them—some of them, anyway—where revolution was still possible, and in some way they behaved not like youths but like nouveaux youths, in the sense that there are the rich and the nouveaux riches, all of them generally rational thinkers, let us repeat, although often incapable of telling their asses from their elbows, and although they noticed a there and a not-there, an absence-presence in the fleeting passage of Pelletier and Espinoza through Bologna, they were incapable of seeing what was really important: Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s absolute boredom regarding everything said there about Archimboldi or their negligent disregard for the gaze of others, as if the two were so much cannibal fodder, a disregard lost on the young conferencegoers, those eager and insatiable cannibals, their thirtysomething faces bloated with success, their expressions shifting from boredom to madness, their coded stutterings speaking only two words: love me, or maybe two words and a phrase: love me, let me love you, though obviously no one understood.)

Despite his fire-breathing (and hilarious) condemnation of these conventional representatives of the Life of the Mind, I don’t mistake Bolaño for any kind of “art for art’s sake” idealist, or for a sniffy or superior “radical,” either. He distinguishes between those who love criticism more than literature in a manner that suggests very clearly that there is a right side of that question to be on, but he doesn’t really tear these guys down in order to put himself above, in the manner, say, of Henry Miller, or Harold Bloom, or James Wood, even. There’s compassion in it, as well as a smackdown, and the ego quotient is not high. Indeed I have formed the impression that there was not one self-regarding bone in this guy’s bod. Just as an aside, because I know that there are so many admirers of David Foster Wallace here: it’s no surprise to me that so many Wallace fans are drawn to Bolaño, because of this pre-eminent quality of intellectual humility, plus low bullshit-tolerance.

(So I had written the above, and then I happened across the most beautiful illustration of this!)

Rodrigo Fresán’s eulogy of Bolaño (http://www.letraslibres.com/index.php?art=8981) is a lovely, gentle, rather elaborately worded remembrance of his friend. He paints Bolaño as a passionate and lively companion, but most of all, as a writer through and through; a man completely dedicated to and steeped in the literary life.

Toward the end, Fresán’ quotes a remarkable email that he received from Bolaño:

Yo no sé cómo hay escritores que aún creen en la inmortalidad literaria. Entiendo que haya quienes creen en la inmortalidad del alma, incluso puedo entender a los que creen en el Paraíso y el Infierno y en esa estación intermedia y sobrecogedora que es el Purgatorio, pero cuando escucho a un escritor hablar de la inmortalidad de determinadas obras literarias me dan ganas de abofetearlo. No estoy hablando de pegarle sino de darle una sola bofetada y después, probablemente, abrazarlo y confortarlo. En esto yo sé que no estarás de acuerdo conmigo, Rodrigo, porque tú eres una persona básicamente no violenta. Yo también lo soy. Cuando digo darle una bofetada estoy más bien pensando en el carácter lenitivo de ciertas bofetadas, como aquellas que en el cine se les da a los histéricos o a las histéricas para que reaccionen y dejen de gritar y salven su vida.

(This is my own translation … please let me know if I’ve botched anything.)

I don’t know how there can be writers who still believe in literary immortality. I understand that there might be those who believe in the immortality of the soul, and I can even believe there are those who believe in Paradise and Hell and in that freaky intermediate station that is Purgatory, but when I hear a writer speak of the immortality of definite works of literature I feel like slapping him. I’m not talking about really belting, so much as just one slap, and afterwards, probably, hugging and comforting him. In this I know that you won’t be in agreement with me, Rodrigo, because you are basically a non-violent person. As am I. When I say, deliver a slap, I’m more thinking of the palliative character of certain slappings, like those in the movies that are administered to hysterics so that they will react, stop screaming, and save their own lives.




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